US senator and former vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman has called on American universities to make sure students - particularly low-income minorities - graduate on time.
To help achieve this objective, he suggested that federal aid to universities be based in part on graduation rates.
Senator Lieberman, who is rumoured to be preparing to run for president in 2004, set the stage for the expected debate over the federal law governing higher education, which is due to be rewritten next year. That follows last year's passage of an unprecedented primary and secondary-school reform bill.
"Our challenge today is to make sure that the same relentless focus on results continues straight through to college graduation," the senator said.
He proposed requiring that 90 per cent of students who go on to universities and colleges after graduating from high school finish their higher education within six years. Currently, about half the higher-income students in the US graduate from college within six years of completing high school; about 7 per cent of low-income students do so.
Universities, Mr Lieberman said, should be required to provide statistics laying out their graduation rates so they "can be held accountable by the people and the communities they serve".
Colleges were "admitting more students than ever before", Mr Lieberman said. But "too many of those students don't graduate because they're not properly prepared or are burdened with debt". He added: "Too many American families are still unable to afford the price of admission or completion."
Mr Lieberman called for expanding federal tax credits to families that were paying university tuition and for federal grants toward tuition to be increased.
The Bush administration has indicated that it, too, will propose greater accountability in higher education, but has tried to block congressional attempts to raise grants towards university tuition.
"College is no longer a luxury. It's the key that opens almost every door to economic opportunity," the senator said. "But lower-income Americans of all races are still not enjoying genuine equality. In fact, students from the top income bracket are about five times more likely to receive a bachelors degree than those in the lowest bracket, and twice as likely as those in the middle. That's not equal opportunity. That's outrageous and unacceptable."
Higher education, he said, "is a civil rightI I hope that this can be the beginning of a new national conversation on how to bring college within the reach of more middle-class and lower-income families".